By Rex Baylon
Towards the latter half of Kim Kyung-mook's Futureless Things, a niggling question kept popping into my head, "Why a convenience store? What makes a convenience store the perfect spot for this peculiar film?" I racked my brain trying to find an answer, hoping that maybe if I could discover the answer Kim's film might not be so muddled for me. Thinking about all the seemingly random events that transpired during the film's 105 minute runtime I came away with one thought: set anywhere else, this film, a not-so subtle commentary on the modern day South Korean psyche, would have been bogged down by a lot of dramatic cliches if it had been shot in an office, a classroom or even a cafe, in turn diluting a lot of the satire and replacing it with obtuse social commentary.
When one thinks of South Korea and, more specifically, the landmarks that define daily Korean life, there are far more obvious choices than a convenience store. Coffeeshops are ubiquitous to Seoul, it seems everyone's goal here is to work in a corporate office, kids spend more time in a classroom than they do at home, Korea's public transportation network is the envy of the entire world, and families save up their pennies just so they can live in one of the many high-rise apartment complexes that dot the Korean landscape. Yet, if one were to tell a story about "futureless" individuals it makes so much sense to place it inside the confines of a convenience store since it is a location that cuts through race, class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation and political affiliation. And in many places convenience stores outnumber traditional markets and grocery stores. It is a site where one can see globalization in real time, with Cass, Coors and Asahi sharing the same shelf. In Kim's pictures it is a place where a bunch of disparate, mostly young people do a few hours of work in the hopes that something better will come along.
Be they young men killing time before they land that big movie role, apathetic dropouts, wannabe LCD Soundsystem musicians, perky beauticians in training or lonely lesbians; the director cuts a wide swath depicting the vast spectrum of personalities that come and go through the film's convenience store setting. For anyone who has spent any time in South Korea these modern day cultural archetypes that the director draws from will be very familiar. Futureless Things works as a satire because though the film might go to the edge when lampooning a lot of South Korea's sacred cows, it does so with a certain sensitivity. The picture may point out a lot of the prejudices and foibles committed by many Koreans, but it never does so seated from a high perch.
I'm certain that a thesis paper could be written on all the various jokes and references made in Futureless Things and it's relation to contemporary Korean culture. In fact, the director's choice of using the noun things instead of individuals or even beings in the film's title is telling. An individual is unique and a being has free agency, but a thing is an object without life or consciousness. To be a thing you exist only as a tool for someone else. Kim makes it very clear in the film that everyone that sits behind the counter is merely a tool to be used and then thrown away. Even the owner of the convenience store isn't safe as Korea's corporate business structure chews him up and spits him out. Futureless Things may not register with anyone who is not Korean or hasn't lived in South Korea for an extended period of time, but the film is a rare commodity in the Korean film industry, a hilarious comedy that doesn't pander to the audience.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).